Under the Volcano

I read the Picador Classics edition (1967) with an introduction by Stephen Spender. Unusually, I read the introduction first, then again after reading the novel, which I read in three sittings. I like Spender, and relate to his reading of the book.

Despite its dual reputations of being difficult and about alcoholism, it is neither. As for difficulty, it’s true that understanding Spanish would be helpful, but the saturated extratextual references to mythology, mysticism, history and so on can be taken as fragments of a disintegrating mind in a disintegrating world: the central theme is of stability versus instability, fragments against ruins, and from this erupts the permanent psychological divisions between desire’s positivity and its demonic twin of destruction. The characters are all one character, the places all one place, the times all one time, though an impossible time – that of a moment that is an ideal locus without nostalgia for past or future.

Alcohol is central of course because the character of the novel is alcoholic, and best read, therefore by an alcoholic – which is most people, for Firmin and his alternatives are merely further advanced into descent and ascent than most which makes his expression approach the ideal moment. The refusal to accept love is not a failure but an affirmation for love is part of the dreadful entanglement of contingent dual actions of affirmation and immediate denial, and it is this tangle (the novel is thick with imagery of entanglement) which is transcended by final descent into the (literal) abyss. Obviously for it could be no other, a novel of immense contradictions, impossible antipathies, and the realisation of being as antithetical to identity.

It is easy to read when one accepts its imagistic concentration. Films, stills, photographs, paintings, advertisements, thicken every paragraph to a flicker that has the paradoxical potential to, like a hollywood movie, enspectre a counterpart to diegesis – a clean, pure, fluid, immensely joyful….. illusion.

It’s a wonderful, exquisitely awful and painful novel of redemption.


Six Walks in Fictional Woods

Six lectures. like six walks with a fascinating companion who’s courteous, humorous gentle with the reader. He’s erudite, of course, but his insights come unforced and ‘natural’. Natural ‘talking’ as opposed to ‘articificial’ – one of the dyads he mentions in passing almost as a casual observation about fictional theory. The only demand he asks of his ‘model’ reader is attention 0 and, well, fascination. It feels inappropriate to say much about anything where Eco is concerned since he says it all so perfectly,  and I think no matter how nuanced the reading the nuances of the writing may well be missed. One could say must be missed, for the woods are not some well-ordered landscape manufacture but “Sacred…tangled and twisted like the forests of the Druids.” In any case, anything I or anybody else says about this or any other text is at best an interesting, or even useful, diagram but nothing like the richly experiential, one may – or may not – appeal to the noumenal – immersion within the woods, within the text. I’d say that if you only read one page of this book read the last one to see what ‘immersion’ and precision may mean.

There are interesting methods that can be learned for approaching fiction if one takes one refraction of Eco’s book, one thin layer, as a guide. I’ve suggested this in practice by glimpsing Dermot Healy through a few of the ways. In particular, the dyads of model reader and empirical reader, the use of a text and the interpretation of a text are seminal. I’ll be returning to the empirical reader as the substance of this post. Suffice it to say that the attention Eco requests from his reader is a requirement to realise the distinction between empirical usage of a text for whatsoever pleasure or other employment a reader may make, and a nuanced sensibility to a text (which does not, of course, exhaust a text’s possibilities: he has been returning to his beloved Sylvie year upon year).

Not surprisingly, another dyad is the fiction-truth twinship that wriggles, writhes, and spreads rhizomes throughout the woods – for I as empirical reader may, even as model reader, legitimately take with me on my walks not only my own memories but the collective memories of my ancestors including Deleuze or whomsoever. There is a type of mainly male psyche which I shall be looking at in a later review of A Goat’s Song which is angrily opposed to ‘mere fiction’ and thereby an unconscious victim to the personal and cultural fictional narratives that effect subjectivity (including, a point Eco makes merely in passing, the subjective narrative of continuing self). As Eco’s lecture series reaches its final point, the fact that a knowledge of narrativity is absent moves from being innocent to being deadly serious.

In an early lecture he suggests that the ‘completion’ of narrative against the messiness and contradictoriness of the world was behind much of the appeal of fiction, myth (and, I think, by implication art generally, including poetry). I marked the passage in rather angry pencil; in my brain I etched cliche, and ‘depoliticised speech’. Yet as the series moved on it came as no surprise that Eco began by asking at the start of his final lecture whether the world could be read as fiction, and whether a ‘work’ of fiction could be constructed to represent the actual (non-neat narratological) mess of living. Swiftly moving through some interesting asides about language and theories of the semiotic-narrative (and I think he was resurrecting tthe possibility of looking again at the idea of grammar’s fundamental axis around activity, that each sentence is a story), he relates the dreadful history of the fictions-as-truths beginning with the Knights Templar of the fourteenth century, through the Rosicruceans, Scottish Freemasons, Jesuits, and all the other stuff – read it, it’s only a few pages – to that dreadful moment of protofascism beginning in nineteenth century France, informing Germany and with us still today in an ugly and terrifying antisemitism. This empirical reader sees fiction as too important to be ignored by the ideology of fact cataloguing.

It is good and human to move back the other way, to that innocence and beauty, the thrill of walking in the woods. We need consoling fictions too, the ones that are neat and well ordered, the way we would like life to be. It’s important too that we know the other end of the spectrum. Life is a struggle, it’s political  and ends with death. As Eco ends his sixth lecture: “..since life is cruel, for you and for me, here I am.”

By Night in Chile

A short review below of this book. I am going to enjoy, I think, reading more Bolano. He seems to be the sort of writer I was getting at in my Anti-writing post.

I do not like those communities of artistic people who are talk and tinkle. I believe the world needs action from good being. Literature is indeed a valid pleasure for its own sake. But there are conservative, reactionary, and, I would say, bad folk out there who put ‘Art’ above life and politics. Surely it can be as much a retreat and sanctuary as anything, but to suggest it as a self-sufficient entity that represents some sort of suprahuman state seems to me to be deeply dangerous.

My Review of the Book

I thought this very good. It’s my first encounter with this writer, and although I have seen reviews suggesting his ‘difficulty’, I have no hesitation in recommending this to anybody. (I thank Mike Puma for suggesting it as probably the most suitable introduction to the author).

It’s very rich and dense, with startling images and cross-cutting motifs; many extra-textual references too, but I hardly think they matter at this stage. Later, I will return to read the book again, as one will return to a film, looking forward to the total experience, reading differently, with more prepared resonance as a reader.

Here I’ll reveal what struck me immediately. The single paragraph of the novel (well, there’s two if you include the seven word paragraph at the end, important as it is) is the confessional of a Priest/Poet/Aesthete/Critic who believes he’s dying. He isn’t – except of course, he is, as we all are. He’s not a sympathetic character, what with his being a coward, a debauch, a hero worshipper, a solipsistic fool (just to begin the  catalogue). But he is sympathetic too for the poor man is just anyone. I’m not convinced that this is remotely a book about Chile, despite the confessor’s search for the very Christian, very Chilean,  I think a reader who goes in fangs bared knowing this Priest is  member of (fashionably, what else, negatively connoted) Opus Dei or intuiting that he was part of the establishment that crushed the brave Socialist experiment will miss much of what is actually in the text. That’s something ironic, something of the the world of the lovers of literature and the arts generally, that something being you don’t approach act and being as a political animal by chattering about representations. There are the precisely controlled traces, just enough, of the horrors of Chile – and, incidentally, Europe and the USA – to help embrace a certain readership into necessary active political studies of the nature of myths , narratives of gods, nations, good and evil, left and right, personal identity. Even Pinochet – who has a speaking part in this novel (during one of the Priest’s six stories) understands that to defeat a story you meed to understand it. Bolano, though, goes deeper, and suggests that if you scratch away at any story an utter boredom, acidie, ruination and decay are revealed. Again, here, the reader who knows knows about relating to personalities at a much more positive level (by contrast): the lecher priest who feels Pinochet’s hand upon his knee like a myriad desiring multitude of hands; the frightened priest who sees in a namesake baby with eyes and mouth closed himself against the world (while, in this moment also rushing with heterosexual desire) knows nothing of health: for him the world is in ruins, and broken and unstable as much of the imagery of the novel explores.

It’s useful to have priest-aesthete as narrator. For one thing, such an individual has the ideological permission to be above the mere world of the messily human, and Sebastian (the priest) assumes such permission (as many do do). His torpor (mere boredom) in Chile is followed by aesthetic excitatation springing from one part of Europe to another. In a hymn to his God he praises not the Lord’s justice or concern for the oppressed but his own being graced by encounter with “my happiness, passion regained, genuine devotion, my prayers rising up and up through the crowds to the realm of pure music, to what for want of a better name we call the choir of angels, a non-human space but undoubtedly the only imaginable space we humans can truly inhabit, an uninhabitable space but the only one worth inhabiting, a space in which we will cease to be but the only space in which we can be what we truly are…” My guess is that there are priest-aesthetes  spouting this all over the world in various forms. There may have been refined monsters in Auschwitz sharing sherries with their local clergy who hissed it too.

This particular failed poet longs for a more ‘cultured’ ‘Chile’. He immerses himself in Graeco-Roman ‘culture’ (clean as a sculpture, and neatly forgetting Aristotle’s – and later Aquinas’ – emphasis upon the political centrality of being); he longs for ‘his’ country to open itself to Whitman, Pound, Eliot, Hugo, Borges, Tolstoy (what a truly bizarre conglomerate!); he wilfully, proudly, separates himself from the universe of political events (the real people’s acting and being), and regularly joins the grotesque gatherings of third-rate literati, artists and such that chatter in comfortable soirees while beneath them in the basements of a house whose labyrinthine corridors are laid our ‘like a crossword puzzle’, victims of torture suffer and die. But he’s no more a coward than anyone who lives like that. Anywhere, any time.

The failure of aestheticism to complete and identity is the torment of this narrator. It is universal. He’s allowed limited reflection himself, for instance awareness of his own own poems’ division into apollonian and dionysian (such a division, of course, being about as creative, active, poetic as a crossword clue), Where the insistent filmic image of ‘zooming’ in through the petals of a flower, through the entrance to the Emperor’s room through door after door of antechambers, to the ‘tunnel of time, back into time’s great meat-grinder’ (the latter near the end) there’s a redemptive possibility, that the frightened story-maker and conservative adult will recognise the wizened youth within and eschew both.

Roberto Bolaño

The truth is, I don’t believe all that much in writing. Starting with my own. Being a writer is pleasant—no, pleasant isn’t the word—it’s an activity that has its share of amusing moments, but I know of other things that are even more amusing, amusing in the same way that literature is for me. Holding up banks, for example. Or directing movies. Or being a gigolo. Or being a child again and playing on a more or less apocalyptic soccer team. Unfortunately, the child grows up, the bank robber is killed, the director runs out of money, the gigolo gets sick and then there’s no other choice but to write. For me, the word writing is the exact opposite of the word waiting. Instead of waiting, there is writing.

Bomb 78/Winter 2002


Woodilee Hospital


Todd took me to the Tower Bar and because he was surly and bad company I got drunk enough for time to pass unnoticed. The bar was a shop with a newsagent one side, a betting shop the other. People came and sat for a drink then left and came back, or sat and  stayed. It was quiet. The other drinkers were like Todd, as if the the dark tatty room, bare of all colour were their natural habitat. If you took away the taps and optics the place could be converted to a presbyterian chapel for next to nothing.

Todd’s sister came in on her way home from work. She was straight into attacking Todd. “Him,” she said. “Him.”

Todd went to the betting shop.

Her name was Josie. We had a few drinks. She said she’d take me to the hospital the next day. Todd never went.

He came back with a paper and sat reading it. Josie left. About seven o’clock we went back to his flat picking up a fish supper and a carryout from the Londis. We watched the Rangers Red Star game. He fell asleep before half time. I went to bed  at ten o’clock.

Next day I couldn’t find anything in the kitchen. I felt sick and light-headed. I went down the lift to meet Josie at the station. On the eighteenth floor a heroin or methadone woman got  in. “Ye ken her doon the front, tha’s oor Joey’s cousin. Bastards. Bluidy hung hersen in front o’ the bairns. Aye, ye fuckin social services for ye. An’ him in t’other block christmas day off t’ bannisters, no even in paper. Three in a month twats.”  And  we dragged on past the concierge station, her still coming down the lift shaft out into the light. “An’ thay puir bastards a’ Red Road, three ae them all t’gither.” , and continuing away from me. “Fuckin social workers. Fuckin doctors.”

On the train I asked Josie why Todd never went. “Drink,” she said. “And the rest of it.”  Todd hadn’t see his Dad for a year. He hadn’t seen his partner and kids for two years.

We got a bus from Tulliston. Owen looked ok, not as bad as I’d heard. After half an hour, Josie left, kissed her Da and told me the time of the bus back to the station.

I had the runs and then went down to the café and bought a sandwich and a couple of coffees and came back. Owen drank half his then vomited it up into the cardboard bowl by his bed. “I’m a goner, lad.”  But he grinned, looked as strong as ever. Then his face dropped. “ We’ll come back one day, son. I don’t know – what – the old ways are gone, it’s not class, it’s spirit, it’s  human resilience. Weak now…” he drifted off, his head turned way from me,” weak now, but we’ll return.”  He clasped my hand. He smiled and his eyes looked incredibly alive for a dying man. “Keep fighting, son.”

I paused, he didn’t. “How’s Todd?” he asked.

“Good of him to put me up and put up with me.”

“Josie’s a strong woman. She disnae ken how to get him back. But she does know he’s not to blame. She’ll keep doing her best.”

He chuckled. “D’ye ken,  now things seen a lot simpler to me, he’s just like the wee lad who got angry when he found out I’d been blagging him eight years about Father Christmas?”

We both paused, my hand still in his, until his eyes closed. I gently unclasped hands and left. I found my way back to the station and Todd’s. That night we went to the Tower Bar and I got very drunk. Todd went off with some boys and gave me the key . I stayed on, buying an old guy from the shipyards whisky. When I got back to the flats I found I had lost the key. I  got into Kelvingrove Park and  tried to sleep on a bench.

It was grey light and frosty drizzle when I woke up and had to heave myself to sitting to vomit the white stuff. Two healthy looking young things were passing and glanced with a cold indifference sharper than disgust.  I felt awful. I made it to a convenience store on Woodside Road and bought a  quarter bottle stiffener, felt better, had some drinks in the Castle Vaults then found myself in Queen Street Station. I bought a ticket to Tulliston and had a coffee and food while I was waiting.

People were looking at me at the bus stop in Tulliston. They could tell.  I was beginning to feel ill again.

I’d been on the bus fifteen minutes when I realised I must have missed the stop. It was only a five minutes ride when I was with Josie.  We were curving up a country lane. woods either side. I went to the front and asked the driver where the hospital was. He said I was on the wrong bus for Storbrail, said I’d have to walk back to Tulliston or take a longer walk through the country park at the next stop. I got off half a mile later at the entrance to the park and he told me it was a four mile walk, just keep following the signs to the main entrance, then a mile and a half up the main road.

There was a faded wooden board. Woodilee Estate, south entrance. The path was steep upwards, muddy. A broken down lodge at the start of it, red brick, cold and dark. I had to go behind it, my lower guts had turned to liquid.

A cold sweat broke out, I was heaving for breath and from retching, got one shoe a foot deep in slime as I climbed. Dizzy and sick I reached a high path that was more used, some gravel thrown on it. I kept coming to branches in the paths, soon had no idea which direction I had come from. The place seemed deserted. The only presence was the stink of layers of decaying leaves being digested by filthy soil. Then a guy with a dog came towards me. I aked him how to get to the hospital. The look he gave me, like he knew. He told me to climb the bank at the next bend and get through the wire, it would be a short cut, I’d see the buildings. I was covered in dirt by the time I got through and saw a huge rising sprawl of something ruined and long abandoned. I went down through debris, junk, thistles, sodden marsh and looked up at a huge clock tower. The place was massive, its walls and windows sliding, refusing to make a fixed shape as I tried to take it in.

A voice from behind me. “Let you out an’ all?” I turned. A big, long jacket hung off something, its voice coming from deep inside the shadow of the baggy hood. “Here ye go, Jim.”  A hand appeared from the coat with a bottle in it. “Gae on. It’ll warm ye.”  I drank and felt warm and better. “They let ye oot too on Tuesdays?”  I drank some more. “See ye later pal. Ah’m away in the noo. Fishcakes. “ The figure shuffled across the smashed glass and rubbish, and disappeared through a cavernous porch into the centre of the building.

I  went round the other side, found an overgrown driveway and followed it down,  had to scramble through a tangle of thorns and barbed wire that interwined  a broken down galvanised gate, then down a road and I hit a dual carriageway. I could see houses to my left and headed in that direction, a suburb thickening about me. I bought a bottle of vodka, sat in a memorial garden and drank. I knew I couldn’t go and visit Owen in my state, white vomit down my jumper, covered in mud and stinking of drink. I just wanted to get to a bed. I drank some more and felt better..

Outside the park, I  came on  a board advertising the renovated canal. It had  a map on it, and I realised I could get back to Todd’s walking down the tow path. But it took me ages to find the canal. I ended up on a road that petered out into asphalt  in a small council estate. Some boys fixing a car there looked at me, like they knew, so I kept on walking down a path across fields. There were tractors and some sheep, teenagers on scramble bikes, corrugated concrete sheds for battery hens. The path went upwards then I saw the canal. On the other side were green hills with huge radio masts dwarfing a couple of farm houses. I went down to the canal and headed towards the city. A mile on and I came to six blocks of flats to my left, fifty yards in front of them a tangle of pylons and transformers, the pylons radiating in every direction. Six or seven young guys smoking weed and drinking special brew, a bit further on a granddad and young kid fishing in the canal.

I walked past the lush Maryhill apartments to the Firhill Locks, sweating again and sick. Sat down on a bench. An old guy came and sat next to me. He pulled a half from his thick overcoat. We talked. “See there, Scouse,” he said indicating the football stadium. “That’s where Alan Hansen started.”  He passed me the bottle. “This place used to be jam packed with boats. I used to pick up cargoes frae Leith and take them on to Clydebank. We had a community of men, real men, dockers, bargemen, shipbuilders. I come here each day, They’ve destroyed everything but they cannae take mah memories.”

The winter night had fallen quick and scraggy. I walked the short distance to the junction,  up past a burned out clothing warehouse, into Purcell Street, into the Tower Bar. Todd was sat there with Josie. “He died this afternoon,” she said. Todd looked at me, his eyes wet and innocent of fraud,  full of longing. I sat and hugged him close to me, stroked his head. “It’s all right. He loves you, Todd.”


On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts

Great review by Michael Dirda in The Washington Post of new biography of De Quincey

(For)  most of his adult existence, De Quincey was an opium addict, an alcoholic in all but name, and a man who spent years dodging creditors, constantly moving from one rented room to another. What money he didn’t spend on laudanum – his preferred opium-alcohol mixture – he spent on buying thousands of books, many of them pricey and rare. For years he rented Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s old home in the Lake District, and essentially used it to store his library and papers. Though from an upper-middle-class family and exceptionally well educated in Latin and Greek, De Quincey nonetheless dropped out of Oxford, eventually married his housekeeper (who bore him eight children) and was regularly shamed by public announcements of his nonpayment of bills. He contributed to multiple magazines, Blackwood’s being the best known, and sooner or later quarreled with nearly all his editors. In person, he was diminutive (under five feet tall) and exceptionally courtly in his manner and speech.

Today De Quincey is remembered, and by some revered, for his evocative (at times purple) prose and for two or three of the most influential works of the 19th century, the most famous being the autobiographical “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.” No less an authority than William Burroughs has called “Confessions” “the first, and still the best, book about drug addiction. . . . No other author since has given such a completely analytical description of what it is like to be a junky from the first use to the effects of withdrawal.”

In this lucid, deeply researched biography, Robert Morrison makes plain that De Quincey wasn’t just a recreational user, but truly a slave to his habit. He would regularly pop pills – laudanum capsules that he kept in a snuffbox – even in the presence of company. Although De Quincey tried repeatedly to break the drug’s hold over him, the consequent shakes, fevers and depressions would eventually destroy his resolve. And yet two sections of “Confessions” are honestly titled: “The Pleasures of Opium” and “The Pains of Opium,” for the drug lifted some of life’s burdens, even as it imposed others. It also allowed for vivid, hallucinatory dreams and memories, often of the dead: the beloved sister whom De Quincey lost when young, the prostitute Ann who shared his early miseries, the 3-year-old Wordsworth daughter he played with and adored, his own deceased children. In opium visions they might all, for a moment, live again.

…. …. ….

Murder, in fact, always deeply fascinated De Quincey and comes to the fore in his wittiest essay, the savagely deadpan “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” Conceived as a lecture to a society of connoisseurs, it remains the foundational text for the grisly black humor of films such as “Kind Hearts and Coronets” or Patricia Highsmith‘s novels about the talented Mr. Ripley. As our lecturer observes: “Something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed, a knife, a purse, and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature.”

Alas, the wholly aesthetic murder can be elusive: “Awkward disturbances will arise; people will not submit to have their throats cut quietly; they will run, they will kick, they will bite; and, whilst the portrait-painter often has to complain of too much torpor in his subject, the artist in our line is generally embarrassed by too much animation.”


A Biography of Thomas De Quincey

By Robert Morrison.

Pegasus. 462 pp.

Dermot Healy’s “Banished Misfortune”

I was put on to this by Alan Beard at the great goodreads community where I share and receive a  love of reading. Alan read it in his bath but he said “it’s all expanded and got dog eared. I kept it by the bath because I would read and re-read the dense, poetic, obscuring prose over and over because it seemed to me to want re-reading”. I observed the caution about reading it near water, and agree with the rest.

As it happens, I have just finished reading A Goat’s Song which is extremely watery, and there is something about water and Healy that seems inseparable. I couldn’t face having to finish Banished Misfortune so I’ve saved the last three stories to read later, taking the wonderful novel as a thick filling: I’ll review that later, but it was extraordinarily powerful reading it with the stories still pulsing in me.

I too will be re-reading the stories. On the book’s blurb the extract from the Irish Press review says “no two stories are alike in theme, or length, or structure, or style…” In an obvious way this is mainly the case, but I’d say the similarities are far greater than the differences. The ones I’ve read are all straight in and straight out leaving a fictional world contingent upon what came before and also what comes after the story: time and perception are both disturbed, disturbing, disorientated. The dislocation and lack of comforting ‘centre’ seem to me so far a hallmark of Healy, and they are congruent with the same attributes of personal identity.

There is a readerly intensity invited. Relatively quickly one gets used to the way a sentence can hold three separate discourses, for instance, three phrases separated by commas separating perhaps times or places or character perspective; one gets used to the intrusion of a single short sentence to state (recall) of a place or scene in winter, an image of it in summer (with no ‘plot’ relevance, but certainly germane to texturing the a collage). Fairly quickly too one handles the compression of ideas, metaphors and other images. Healy is fascinated by ideas and words, inexpressibility, fiction and ‘truth’, clarity and fog, feelings: he’s as likely to employ pathetic as unpathetic, echoing and contradictory, elements – say between character’s feeling state and landscape – in the same grasping for total impression. The very short Betrayal is excellent: very close to poetry, the sort of images and ‘symbols’ that have no existence in the literal world; too, a delightful intellectual exercise.

Related to the poetic, a great pleasure for a reader is desire frustrated. A text which tantalises, brings a world to life so real you feel you could walk in it, yet purposely (as a function of the writing) withholds itself. A major method of this is in the way only the merest suggestion of the world whence the moment of the story is given, so one has the startling clarity of that momentary world in stark contrast to the unattainable, vaporous trace of a world of which you know almost nothing, yet, paradoxically, because of the ‘reality’ of the story’s world, accept as equally real. And in this, the form matches perfectly with central themes: desire itself, memory, consciousness, and a kind of permanent vagueness about the past the only bulwark against being the construction of stories. This is psychological realism.

Umberto Eco in Six Walks in the Fictional Woods discusses time and memory,  with reference to narrative, verb tense, narrative time, discourse, plot and story; also he talks about ‘mistiness’ in relation to discourse, imagery which consists not of identifiable elements but something very intense and sensuous (I think dreamlike). Eco’s wonderful set of essays conscentrates on Labrunie’s  Sylvie, a novel that has provided with a fascination since his student days. I do believe that what Eco achieves by way of analysis would find good exemplary focus with Healy’s work. The ‘mistiness’ (often literal at the surface level of his landscape descriptions) is achieved primarily through disturbing the possibility of constancy of time (in duration, quality or any other attribute) or orienting spatial centre, with the barest hint sometimes of ‘story’ except that which coincides with ‘plot’ (the way the story is put together especially in its temporal sequencing).

Eco says of Sylvie, “although I have treated Sylvie with almost clinical rigor for years and years, the book has never lost its charm for me. Every time I reread it, it is as if my love affair with Sylvie I’m not sure whether I mean the book or the chaacter) were beginning for the first time. How can this be possible, since I know the grid, the secret of its strategy? Because the grid can be designed from outside the text, but when you return to the text, and -once within it – you cannot read in haste….as you slow down, as you accept its pace, you forget about and grid or Ariadne’s thread, and you get lost again in the woods…”

Wise words on many levels, talking of which Eco distinguisher between a ‘model reader’ who reads for a story so only needs to read texts once, and the second level reader who enjoys the pleasures of the fictional woods. In those woods or texts the various paths may be compared with a musical score. Says Eco, “It is like a melody, which the reader can enjoy first for the effects it elicits, and later by discovering how an unexpected series of interals can produce these effects. This score tells us how a tempo is imposed upon the reader by ‘shifting gears’ so to speak.”

For myself, by coincidence reading Eco straight after Healy, firstly Eco shines brilliantly! Then, inseparably, both he and Healy equally. Incidentally, Eco’s Serendipities is a great book. Eco generously allows for an ’empirical reader’ as well as a model reader (and, of course, neither exist in their pure state). The empirical reader is, in the fictional woods, very likely to read the paths using criteria drawn from their private life (that is, by projecting onto the text what I.A. Richards called’mnemonic irrelevancies’), adding ‘meaning’ to a text that isn’t supposed to be there. Healy welcomes such ‘intrusions’ not as distortions but to add to what is a created liquiity. (And Eco’s brilliant ‘grid’, as he reminds us, theory, template is no use at all when you submit to the pull of the actual text, its discourse, its music.)

I finished reading Banished Misfortune happily aware I would be revisiting. Some of the stories do work extremely well at the level of story (yes, I know it’s a very crude distinction) but all of them contain the refractions of a single discourse. The Tenant is geometrically apparent in its plot and story. The empirical reader could well enjoy Bad Day at Black Rock meets Dad’ Army, and why not? There are many stories of strangers coming into small towns, dreadful tension beneath the public order. Healy does it well, also replay in the motif that plays through much of his writing about identity, history and the instability of the present. Tension is achieved formally, but where Healy describes psychic states very thickly in thinly drawn characters  the tension of Northern Ireland’s ‘troubles’ are located at the personal level; history and the reality’ of life are put, not to much in counterpoint as counterpart.

Always,  this historical dimension, really a question of identity, memory, is begun with the individual, with feeling, with personal sense of being. Yet this is different from the cosy concept of fixed person, fixed mind: the mind itself is free floating, as the reader’s perceptions are tilted, misted, disoriented int ime, so too the person who is reading’s mind, being; so too the writer’s; so too the human. And though you can’t ever really know that much even about yourself, as your Dad might have told you, “In a foot of land there’s a square mile of learning.”


A few quotations:

I have lived with faith yet never found its expiation. If I have discovered anything it is that life is bare and vital, embroidered by language and laughter, and still so quick that no image can satisfy or symbol call up all the longings. I am at least free of association. Names have fallen away. The village people have become like shadows, like stains years old. Stains not of blood, for those are the city people walking the streets, alive and caricatured, but the village shadows are old friends, like decaying domestic matter.

(Note the above contrast between ‘real life’ city folk as caricatures and the shadowy, ‘decaying’, ‘stained’ humanity he feels at home in.)

No hint of flesh or hair could persuade me that I existed at twenty, nor companion at forty give evidence of my worth. Nor could I defend myself from reality, when, as some part of me chooses to consider the exciting and deepening possibilities of my life ahead, there for one terrifying moment remains only my life before. And from these unwilled insights, emerges myself, unwilled, judged, unreasonable, and from this flow the lives of other people.

And there is an important double meaning, I think to the phrase “from this flow the lives of other people”: our mutual humanity, and the nothingness from which the writer weaves a narrative.

I’ll be returning to this review. May buy an extra copy for the bath!